Understanding 5G, and Why It’s the Future (Not Present) for Mobile Communications

Originally published at: Understanding 5G, and Why It’s the Future (Not Present) for Mobile Communications - TidBITS

The latest set of cellular networking standards—collected under the rubric of “5G”—improves mobile networking performance ever closer to Wi-Fi and wired connections, but it’s not worth all the hype. Not yet, anyway.

13 posts were split to a new topic: 1 Gbps on Newbury Street like 640K of RAM? :slight_smile:

Apparently they are not referring to 5G but I just got a promo email from GigSky suggesting that “Netflix is our go-to for entertainment these days, but with that comes buffering and network congestion (family members, anyone?) Instead, ditch the home WiFi and grab your own data plan from GigSky”
I guess they are targeting US customers - 4G data plans are too expensive in Australia!

Thank you Glenn I always appreciate your submittals to TidBITS. This is the best or one of the 5 best I’ve read. I felt like I was back enjoying the best of my professors from college days

I forwarded the TidBITS article (with acknowledgements to you and TidBITS ) to a group of associates that I communicate with

I moved this paragraph to my introduation

In short, although 5G is inevitable and may become an important aspect of society’s networking infrastructure, there’s no reason for most people to upgrade to get it right now.

Again thanks for all your articles

Jerry in FL


Thanks, Jerry! It is the nut of the article, more or less. 4G felt more insistent, because 3G and 3G+ was really barely cutting it, and as 4G LTE rolled out, mobile broadband became distinctly better.

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I especially echo Glenn from within the article that “4G” was a lesser improvement than when LTE really took off. We’re still in a mostly LTE world – as Glenn said there are times when 5G doesn’t match LTE speed. My speculation is that we won’t be in a mostly 5G world until 2023, and not in a 5G WideBand world until 2025 or later.

Sprint had invested in a technology called WiMax and had it in deployment before LTE really spread. It obviously failed to gain traction as Sprint got acquired by T-Mobile.
Perhaps the infrastructure and frequency assets were of use to T-Mobile? No idea.

Continuing to buy your TC books, Glenn. The first especially is a regular upgrade and go-to reference for me.

Reminder: this last one is FREE.

Also, I literally refused to use Zoom because of its lack of ethics and competence until I read Glenn Fleishman explain the issues. I didn’t trust anything coming out of Zoom, but I’ve trusted Glenn’s writing for a long long time.

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It’s hard for me to get excited about gigabit speeds while roaming with my phone when I’m still limited to ~2Mbps at home with no improvement in sight. When I moved to rural Northern California 20 years ago I was stoked because I went from dial-up to DSL. Little did I know it would never improve from there.

Sadly, it seemed that whenever the FCC confronted the broadband industry with their abysmal performance and extortionate prices, they carriers would just shout “But 5G! 5G!” and the FCC would inexplicably back off as though 5G might actually help. I personally think Starlink will ultimately have more of an impact on the industry than all the 5G carriers worldwide, combined.

Yeah, Starlink is pretty much my only hope at this point. Godspeed, little satellites!

Perhaps it will.

Personally I’m with the astronomers however, I hope Starlink fails and stops in its tracks.

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Wonderful, thorough and balanced article on a complex subject that is beautifully written so that the content is easily assimilable.

On a practical level I have for ages been telling everyone who will listen that 5G is totally unnecessary for the foreseeable future, and not to be taken in by the marketing hype. If I had a 5G-capable iPhone I would switch off 5G to increase battery life until it actually delivers any appreciable benefit.

I find it immensely frustrating that the whole industry is seemingly set on cynically persuading people that they need 5G now. Whether it is the networks or the phone manufacturers they can’t help themselves - something new that they can use to sell new stuff when the feature won’t make any difference to the vast vast majority of people.

When will people appreciate that sometimes things are as good as they need to be (for the moment at least), and until a valid reason to get something new appears they may as well stick with what they’ve already got? It is populism at its heart - listen only to the message, don’t bother to try and find out the truth!

Apart from the cost to individuals of upgrading sooner than they need to, the negative side of it is that this behaviour encourages excessive exploitation of limited natural resources to manufacture all these new devices, not to mention the waste problem caused by all the casually discarded old devices.

One final point is that I despair at two other factors that contribute to excessive and unnecessary replacement of devices - Android phone-makers who don’t update their devices for more than (typically, or even at most) two years which forces people to buy new phones if they want to stay safe, and people buying phones as part of a contract which encourages them to upgrade every two years whether the phone needs replacing or not.

On a personal level, I’m looking forward to the ability download a movie from Netflix in just a very few minutes, or all four seasons of The Crown. Just about everything that needs to be downloaded and uploaded will happen much more quickly, including online shopping. FaceTime, Zoom, MS Teams, and other online collaborative communications and video conferencing services will work faster and better. Mapping and public transportation and shipping will benefit tremendously. In addition to logistics, inventory management and traffic tracking, it’s currently enabling the development of drone delivery services. Online photo, video and audio editing and storage stuff will benefit, both for personal and professional uses. Just about any online intelligence service will process faster and better. And it will literally change the world for gamers. Weather and tracking and reporting will greatly improve, this will benefit individuals and businesses, including shipping, agriculture, security and public transportation of every type. I’ve read that about development of systems that will traffic lights that will adjust to what is going on in the street.

So will every flavor of emergency services. Medical services will benefit tremendously…everything from processing and transferring records, including diagnostic tools like MRIs, CAT scans, robotic surgery. It will make personal and business use of cloud services, including photos in iCloud, work better and faster. Robotics as well. 5G will also make stuff like drone delivery a reality, as well as for autonomous driving for shipping, personal and public and personal transportation. Online shopping experiences will even get better, and I’ve heard about stuff like virtual try ons where you could assemble entire outfits or decorate rooms with furniture, window and wall treatments.

It will also make VR/AR glasses a reality, which will greatly transform businesses as well as gaming. I’ll bet 5G is a very big why Apple started building out its Arcade. And 5G will really enable video, graphic, scientific, educational, etc. market segments that use Macs and Mac Pros to work faster and better, as well as iOS device owners; it will help Apple sell more hardware and software.

My thanks to Glenn for another great article.

Most of what you list mostly happens in fixed locations, and is available now, is the thing! I have gigabit Internet at my house, and 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps service is increasingly common. Wi-Fi carrying capacity is now in the gigabits with the latest flavor, with real 1 Gbps throughput.

I agree there are specific use cases that could use low latency and higher throughput, for sure.

So all of this stuff you list is happening NOW or will be very very soon, and is not possible over conventional fixed-line connections which have effectively unlimited bandwidth, speed, and very low latency? Sorry, I think you’ve fallen for the hype.

Maybe one day that stuff will be happening AND happening remote from any fixed connection, but right now AND for the foreseeable future, it isn’t.

If I had a 5G phone I can guarantee that stuff would not be happening from it. Not to mention the coverage issue which is going to take a very long time to resolve at anything approaching scale. And in particular the lack of significant coverage is going to delay the implementation of anything that will depend on (or, to put it another way, be enabled by) 5G’s speed until that coverage is in place.

We all need to get better at differentiating between the future and now.

It was Alan Kay who said, I believe, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

The tension here is that the cellular carriers and the phone manufacturers are putting a lot of marketing effort behind 5G even though the real-world benefit to users is minimal at the moment.

I firmly believe that 5G will be a big deal, just as having high-speed broadband to the home made possible all sorts of things we had no clue we’d be able to do back in the modem days. When that will be remains unknown, but the more widespread the technology, the sooner new uses will become possible.

If I can download all four seasons of The Crown in 1-2 minutes, rather than almost forever like I would need to do now, I would be happy to shell out more money for 5G. I did have robotic surgery years ago, and though it was much faster and less invasive than traditional methods, it would have been accomplished a lot faster with 5G, and it would free up OR and medical personnel to help other patients. I thought I was very clear about the things I mentioned that are taking considerable time on LTE right now will benefit from happening in seconds or a very few minutes on 5G.

Most of the big department stores invested lots of money to develop virtual fitting rooms; nobody used them because on the rare occasions they didn’t crash, they took forever to render and never rendered properly. No amount of tinkering could make them work properly because of latency issues. Years ago I had robotic surgery which took over an hour. If it could have been accomplished in less time, more patients could have been served in the OR, and I might have needed less anesthesia. And if traffic lights could respond dynamically in seconds to road conditions and traffic build ups, everyone would benefit from faster commutes, safety concerns as well as consuming less gasoline and electricity. Japan has started converting to 5G traffic lights last year, and they are leading in building out 5G systems. There’s a lengthy but very interesting report about the achievements and plans for the roll out here:

Right, but many things you’re describing are best served in most places with wired Ethernet and high-speed broadband, which offers consistent low-latency or can be tuned and predictably have it. 5G will be an improvement on latency over 4G, but it’s competing with high-speed wired service for that, not improving on it.

Now, in places in which wired infrastructure in the final mile is lacking or impossible, 5G deployments using “greenfield” approaches (meaning, wiring stuff for 5G from scratch instead of retrofitting buildings, streets, etc.) could be an advantage. There are certainly parts of cities all over the world where it would cost a fortune to put in high-speed wired service, and 5G—if sold for real home/work broadband purposes and not for limited mobile connectivity—is an improvement. But that’s a small subset of all potential homes and businesses served in places in which 5G will be deployed.

I’ve investigated a lot of “5G” technology for a few years as a part of my job.

While higher bandwidth (especially where mmWave bands are available) is going to be the most public feature, and the one network operators advertise the most, there are other features that I think are far more interesting and significant than just a faster version of what we’ve been using for the past 10 years, including:

  • Massive MIMO and beam-forming, allowing a single tower to support far more devices, and greatly reducing congestion to those devices.

  • Edge computing, putting compute servers (as you might find in data centers hosting cloud services) close to the network’s edge (the cell towers and the operators’ data centers directly attached to the towers) in order to minimize latency when using cloud service that have been made available on those edge nodes. This is expected to be critical for features like autonomous driving and emergency services.

  • Various SDN/NFV technologies. Software-defined network topologies and configuration in order to support things like wireless VPNs with bandwidth guarantees and reserved bandwidth (e.g. “network slicing” to reserve specific sub-carrier bands and time slices for high priority traffic like emergency services and premium services).

  • Narrowband IoT. Parts of the spectrum (often the unused space between radio carriers within a band) used to provide low bandwidth capabilities for IoT devices. Think, for example, about a weather station that needs to send a few kB of data per day, but needs a reliable connection for that data. This has been available in the LTE world and even 3G, but it has been greatly improved in 5G.

  • Use of spectrum normally reserved for unlicensed use and law enforcement/military use in places where nobody else is using it.

  • Reorganization of the wireless core network. This is the data-center servers where the various 3GPP protocols run, formerly called the EPC (evolved packet core) in the LTE world.

See also:

Oh, that’s something I hadn’t gleaned from my reading and interviews. Very smart.

I think it’s important to consider the potential impact of super advanced analytics and rapid data crunching that the edge offers, along with the ability to deliver information in real time. Edge computing will especially benefit IOT and mobile devices. And if the devices can be tracked by particular groups of towers, then there is the potential it can remain local. But I have no doubt that Amazon, Google/Android MS, etc. will move the data they gather into their respective clouds and target advertising more effectively. It’s one of the reasons why the NFL hooked up with Verizon.

I think that any service where speed is an issue will also benefit from 5G and Edge. Hospital and medical services, doctors’ offices will benefit, especially from rapid communications and access to records. And in times of major, challenging public health and safety crisises, gathering, compiling, interpreting and storing information, as well as speedy delivery, would be facilitated. If 5G Edge were available now it would certainly benefit Covid contact tracing, but just about any public health endeavor where speed and rapid analytic data crunching is important will equally benefit.

Monitoring localized environmental and safety issues, food and supply services, as well as managing public transportation and shipping will benefit in addition to autonomous cars. Retailers of all sizes and shape will benefit from rapid data, and they can probably develop virtual dressing room apps that work. It would be good for inventory and supply chain management, as well as trend spotting in just about any industry, department or situation.

Media and advertising companies, as well as gaming, are salivating at the opportunities 5G and IOT will enable. Think super high res video and movies, as well as immersive 3D games, The more information they can gather and respond to on real time, the better for their bottom lines. It’s why Apple and other device manufacturers are making a big deal about it.